Y’know, there are a lot of times in your life where you can learn something really important about yourself just by taking a step back and looking at what’s in front of you. For me, one of those moments occurred when I realized I was packing my bag full of garden-fresh curare and scopolamine in anticipation of a shootout. Some men pack submachine guns in violin cases to take with them onto trains. I fill toiletry bags full of burundanga and Venezuelan spit straws.
And you say you like your shootouts like you like your women…
What part of “one hit knockout drug” doesn’t meet your requirements for quick, clean, and easy?
I dunno, the part where a differential of a few fucking milligrams means I either get shot in the face half-a-dozen times or I kill someone instead of knock them out and have to explain to the cops why I’m the only one on the train with the exact same blowgun and darts full of home-grown jungle drugs used to poison a man in cold blood? Which would then of course lead to an investigation of my house and the subsequent discovery of a budding nepenthe farm…
I sighed. Priorities, Alfonso. Priorities.
I packed the powdered plants deep away into my suitcase like I was Edward Teach and his merry band of buttpirates trying to bury their lost pirate booty, before a creaking noise in the living room made me jump. I peeked my head out the door at Annie, still snug as a bug in a rug sleeping in her bed. I breathed a sigh of relief and sat down next to her, gently running my hand through her hair.
She was sleeping so peacefully. What was I worried about? Even if she had seen me, to her all those plants I kept lying around in my room were just a weird hobby. Annie was a voracious reader, but she couldn’t care less about flowers or saving the rainforest, and I knew she didn’t know the first thing about drugs. Or at least I hoped she didn’t.
No, not my hopelessly naive, straight-laced little sister. She’d sooner have a smoking gun in her hand before she had a doobie. Poor girl had always been afraid of drinking even before Prohibition started. She always said she was gonna join a temperance union once she came of age.
I got up and nearly fell flat on my ass when my nerves lit up like they’d been struck by a tiny lightning bolt. Pins and needles ran up and down my leg and I had to steady myself on the wall. I looked down.
Right, still should be in a cast. Why do I keep forgetting that?
Funny thing about hospitals. They’ll admit you if you ask them to, but they don’t necessarily discharge you when you ask them to either. They’ll discharge you once they’ve decided you don’t need them anymore. Or in other words, whenever the hell they want. Just because my arm and leg are still broken doesn’t mean I still need to be in the hospital, apparently. See, caring for patients takes money, and whenever they can afford to stop spending that money, you’re no longer the hospital’s problem.
In my case, they decided I was ready to be out and walking about even before everything finished healing, so they slapped some brand new casts on me and sent me on their way even though my arms and legs weren’t gonna be anywhere near fixed for a few more weeks. Then they charged me extra for the crutches and pain medication I’d need to get around outside the hospital and told me that if I came in again because I got my legs busted up in some accident (like say an accident caused by having to get around on crutches and a bum leg), I’d have to be readmitted, which would of course cost extra, putting me even deeper in debt because they wouldn’t finish the job the first time (if you’re wondering how I kept them from scalping me, I borrowed some of Annie’s old crutches and asked not to have a cast put on my leg).
And they say we’re the criminals.
I grunted as I stabilized, remembering not to put too much weight on my one leg all at once this time. Stepping carefully, I waddled over to the bathroom where the medicine cabinet was. Opening the squeaky door quietly, I grabbed the bottle of pain medication they prescribed me. Good ol’ benzoylmethylecgonine hydrochloride a.k.a coke.
I unscrewed the lid. Nowadays you needed a fucking prescription to get this shit legally, can you believe that? I could’ve easily asked Marq for some, but as long as I had a legal carte blanche to take this stuff, I might as well buy it from the pharmacy. It’s purer, and I can always just refill the official looking bottle with Paulie’s cheap shit once I run dry.
I used to do cocaine even as a kid, y’know. Me and Marq would go out behind the dumpsters and snort like pigs until the cops chased us away. We started experimenting in all sorts of different ways to get fucked up. Once I even took a hit right off a hooker’s ass once. Eventually I kicked the habit once I got serious about providing for Annie at the hospital, but now it looked like I had no choice but to jump back on the bandwagon.
Popping one of the drops in my mouth, I shuddered as a wave of euphoria hit me. I’ve heard people describe it as feeling like having your first orgasm all over again except through your entire body, but I don’t know if that’s necessarily true. Maybe the first time, yeah, but after that it just gets more and more disappointing the more you do it.
Guess it really is a lot like your first orgasm then, I thought, screwing the lid back on the bottle. I was gonna have to take these things with me too, huh? Couldn’t risk getting the feeling in my leg back if I had to start running.
I jangled bottle around. I dunno though. Something about being high on the job never really agreed with me. Seems fucking stupid.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike drugs. Drugs are fucking amazing. Most drugs anyway. But there’s a time and a place for that. I don’t like the idea of being so fucking blitzed that I can’t do my job right. It’s disgraceful. I’m not some fucking teenager anymore, am I?
“Al?” I heard someone say weakly. Annie. She sounded tired. Had I woken her up somehow? No freakin’ way. I almost knock over a bookshelf and popping pills is what wakes her up?
I poked my head around the corner. There she was, sitting up in her bed. Unbelievable.
“Hey,” I said. “What are you doing up, Annie? It’s late. Go back to bed. You heard what Marq said, we have to be at the station at 8:30.”
“Yeah, I just… I heard something. What were you doing in the bathroom, Al?”
“It’s nothing, I was just-”
She stared at the bulge in my breast pocket. Before I could do anything, she’d snatched up the bottle and was holding it under the moonlight to read.
“Cocaine?” she said. “Why do you have cocaine?!”
I snatched the bottle away from her.
“It’s not what you think it is. This is just the pain medication they prescribed me.”
“Brother, you know you have a problem with that stuff! Why are you using it again, I thought you said your leg was fine!”
“Well it isn’t!”
“Liar! You were walking around on it just fine yesterday!”
“I was… kinda…”
“…. No. You were not.”
I nodded my head.
“And at Spankie’s?!”
“Guilty as charged,” I said, sighing. “Listen, Annie. I don’t know what you’re so upset about all of a sudden. This is just medicine, that’s it. I take it to numb the pain so I can walk without crutches.”
“I’m upset because we both know you’ve already been addicted to that stuff once! What’s to stop you from having a relapse once you’re healed? We don’t have the money to spend on that, Al!” she said. “And what’s wrong with walking on crutches? I walk on crutches!”
“Newsflash Annie, but we barely have the money to spend on anything. That hospital bill? That set us back thirteen thou’. That’s more than I have in savings, and if I can’t work, we’re gonna be up to our eyeballs in debt again sooner than you can blink!”
“You’re a nurse, Al! Why do you need pain medication to work?!
“I dunno, maybe because I can’t concentrate without it. How’s that for an answer?”
She looked away. Oh no.
“I’m worried about you, brother.” Ohhhhhh no. “You’re acting weird, you’ve been working late hours, and sometimes I never even get to see you. Now I find out you’re still friends with that man and you’ve been taking cocaine drops and lying to me about it!”
“It’s not really lying, I just… never told you…” I said weakly.
“Same thing!” she said on the verge of tears. “I’m worried about you, brother, I really am. I’m worried and I’m scared and I don’t know what to do. First you’re in the hospital, then the Marquis and now all this? I keep trying to do my part and look after you the way you look after me, but… what do you expect me to do when you’re trying so hard to get yourself in trouble?!”
Annie started sniffling, and suddenly I just… I wasn’t mad anymore. Mom had always said Annie was a little doe. She had a way of just looking at you with those eyes and suddenly you just melted in front of her. The way she used to look at me when she was a kid… that was what made me think I just had to protect her. No matter what.
“Hey, hey…” I said, wrapping my arms around her. “You do plenty, Annie, and I appreciate it more than you’ll ever know. It’s gonna be alright. We’ve been through some tight spots before and we always manage to pull through. It’ll be the same this time. I just need you to trust your big brother, okay Annie?”
She looked up at me, and sniffed. “Then tell me what’s going on. Tell me what’s going on so I can help you. And no bullshit either! I want the truth!”
I felt someone tie my stomach into a knot. This situation… I had to tell her. I had no choice. But how could I tell her? Then again, how could I not?
“The truth is… the truth is…” I sighed. “The truth is Annie, I haven’t just been working at the hospital. I’ve been doing other work too. I said Marq was my financial advisor, but the truth is… he’s my boss. Kinda. Part-time. I… I help him with stuff around the office when I’m not busy at the hospital, running errands and doing little favors for him. In exchange, he pays for what my nurse’s salary doesn’t.”
“Are you sure that’s it?” she said. “Are you sure there’s nothing else you want to tell me?”
“Come on, quit busting my balls here, Annie. It kinda sounds like you wanted there to be something else to it,” I said, teasing her. “Don’t tell me you secretly dream of living dangerously as la donna de disastro like Anne Bonney or Calamity Jane?”
I managed to work a chuckle out of her with that one..
“Of course not…” Then she hugged me back, just out of nowhere. “Thanks for telling me the truth, Al.”
I forced myself to smile. “Yeah. No problem.”
Even for as much as that thank you stung like a bitter poison, I could live with myself just a little while longer telling her that. The truth that wasn’t the truth, simultaneously a fact and a fabrication. Or as Marq would’ve said when we were kids, “some fancy fucking footwork”. To adult me though, it just felt like my mouth had written Annie a check my butt wouldn’t be able to cash.
Another day, Alfonso. Save it for another day…
Annie and I met Marq at the train station at exactly 8:30 the next morning, and quite promptly at that. A pleasant numbness spreading throughout my leg after popping my last pill at breakfast, I handed my completely innocent luggage to the attendant and meandered over to Marq carrying my toiletry bag of smuggled tools.
“Yo,” I said, looking around. “Where is everybody?”
Marq sighed. “Well, Sostene got apprehended at the door by one of the stewards. Apparently sun-fearing fellas like him aren’t allowed to ride in first class according to company regulations, so they took him out back and he’s been arguing with them ever since.”
“That’s horrible…” Anastasia said.
“Isn’t that, y’know, kind of a bad idea?” I said, worried about Sostene’s “anger management issues”. “And what about Nayeli? Where’s she at? Don’t tell me she got detained too.”
“No, she’s always allowed to ride in first class. For the… opposite reasons.”
Because it was too much trouble to let a vampire onboard with all the other passengers, and too much trouble not to let a demigod on board. I understood immediately.
“Okay, that just leaves one person unaccounted for,” I said, smirking. “Where’s this new bird of yours, Marq? If she looks anything like Nayeli, I’d sure like to get to know her.”
“Right here, Mr. Anastasio.”
I turned around, and immediately the color drained from my face. The brazenly blonde-haired girl I was looking at was about my age, a few years younger than Marq at least. And I hate to say that I recognized her immediately.
Marq sighed. “Alfonso, meet Felicity Overscore. Local independent businesswoman and daughter of our dear Mayor Overscore.”
She stuck out her hand, her eyes fixedly stonefaced. “It’s my pleasure.”
Timidly, I shook her hand. “Yeah, sure. No, pleasure’s all mine…”
This was going to be an interesting train ride.